Believe it or not, Punk and Hip-Hop are rooted in many of the same things. The same city (NYC), the same working-class conditions of poverty, the same do-it-yourself ethic that resulted in the creation of both genres- these things gave common threads that lent themselves to an unlikely friendship between two genres that are radically different in sonic terms.

The earliest formation of what could be called a genuine punk movement (as opposed to earlier protopunk groups such as the MC5, New York Dolls, and the Stooges) began in Manhattan around 1974/75, revolving around a venue circuit of run-down bars like the CBGB. It came out of a working class movement of young people who were tired of the pretensions of arena rock and disco, a music culture that put music-making out of the hands of regular folk. So, when the Ramones, arguably the most influential punk band of all time, picked up their instruments and leather jackets in 1975, not a single one of them could really play their instruments.

Around the same time, DJ Kool Herc was spinning records at parties in the Bronx. He had been doing this for a bit already, his parties highly popular for his eclectic and niche taste in music- Herc would play the best dance music of the time, putting down records ranging from live James Brown records to Edgar Winter singles. After he started getting gigs DJ’ing Bronx clubs, he made a discovery that was potentially one of the most important in music history- he could set up the same record on two turntables, and loop the break-beat section of records. This process would be refined by Grandmaster Flash, who invented DJ’ing as we know it today, and by 1977, the Bronx had a holy trinity of DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa spinning records in the underground. This early hip-hop scene mirrored the rebellious spirit and do-it-yourself attitude of the punk culture across the river.

By the late 70’s/early 80’s, after the Sugar Hill Gang had put out “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop groups were looking to expand out of the Bronx and into Manhattan, but the disco clubs wouldn’t have them. This was how first contact was made between the two genres- Grandmaster Flash had a friend who booked shows in Manhattan and was able to get Flash booked in the most unlikely of places- the punk bars. As it turned out, the punks were all about any music that was out of the norm and rebellious. Reportedly, Blondie was at this first show, and told Flash that she was going to write a song about him.

Not long after, in 1981, Blondie put out the single Rapture, which had the first video on MTV to ever feature rapping. One can see the influence on Flash and the Furious 5- in the video for “The Message,” released in 1982, Melle Mel can be seen sporting a very punk-esque outfit, complete with studded leather armbands.

This expansion of Hip-Hop into Manhattan led one punk to fall in love with hip-hop- Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam records. Rubin produced several of Hip-Hop’s early records, and signed monolithic artists such as LL Cool J and Public Enemy. He was also responsible for pushing the Beastie Boys away from hardcore punk and into the realm of Hip-Hop.

Public Enemy, on a related note, was no stranger to collaboration with punk groups. Chuck D and Flavor Flav were known to rock Minor Threat gear, and famously collaborated with New York Thrash band Anthrax for a notorious version of “Bring The Noise,” one of the earliest examples of Rap-Rock crossover.

By this point, the Hip-Hop and Punk communities already had a large amount of cultural exchange, ranging from punks picking up graffiti, to exchanges of fashion. The two cultures even started skateboarding together, which furthered the camaraderie and blurring between Hip-Hop and Punk communities.

This collaboration continued well into the 90’s. In 1992, Ice-T, who was one of the first innovators of “gansta rap,” put out an album with the band Body Count, a hardcore punk band with Ice-T fronting as a rapper. The same year, Rage Against the Machine put out their self-titled first record. RATM is especially notable, as both Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha started out in hardcore punk bands before any forays into hip-hop. However, the hip-hop elements of RATM are perfectly blended with the punk rock sounds- one can even hear Morello imitate the G-funk sounds of Dr. Dre with his guitar.

These early Rap-Rock outfits launched a million poorly conceived rap-rock bands, and (regrettably) the nu-metal movement. However, the relationship between punk and hip-hop up to the early 90’s was directly responsible for the kind of music that would sit at the center of American popular culture four around a decade (~1995-~2005); bands like Korn and System of a Down would take cues from Hip-Hop without explicitly using material from the genre.

This is a point at which it might be worthwhile to note the appropriative and exploitative element of white rock musicians using “rap” in their music. Hip-Hop was created within the confines of an explicitly ethnic community- the Bronx was Puerto-Rican and Black, and the racialized economic conditions of people of color were a massive factor in the emergence of the genre. Hip-Hop, which was always denigrated and associated with particularly racist characterizations of the Black community, had a hard time breaking into the mainstream for the longest time largely because of racism. So for white musicians and producers (Blondie, Rick Rubin, the Beastie Boys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) to capitalize and massively profit on this sound was (rightfully) perceived as monetary exploitation of a culture and music intrinsically associated with the struggle of the Black community. So, while much of this article is meant to celebrate collaboration between the punk and hip-hop communities, it must come with an asterisk. We should celebrate historic working class alliances- and not garbage like Sum 41’s Fat Lip.

That aside, today there appears to be a resurgence of interest from many contemporary hip-hop artists in punk rock. Tyler, The Creator of Odd Future has gone on record describing the hip-hop collective as a “punk band.” And certainly, the group has borrowed aesthetics from horror-punk bands at their live performances in the past. On the album Rebirth, Lil’ Wayne clearly took massive influence from punk rock. Kanye West, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, and Lupe Fiasco (who has a punk-ish band as a side project) have all, at various points, indicated that Joy Division was an influence to them, either musically or creatively. Punk fashion has become heavily en vogue for many rappers. Rappers over the last two decades have frequently noted the influence of Kurt Cobain.

What is so wonderful about the interaction between these two genres is their origin in working-class communities with a do-it-yourself attitude. Like how the early punks cobbled together anyone with a pulse to play whatever crappy instruments they could find to go play some slimy bar, the early hip-hop DJs substituted sound-systems as their instruments and jerry-rigged up speaker systems to do shows in the parks. Both rejected the glitz and glamor of the disco movement, the arena rock, the glam. And they were both youth movements maligned as dangerous, corrupt, and drug-infested by the pundits and politicians of their time.

Eventually, one has to wonder why anyone would be surprised that these communities collaborated with each other for so long.

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2 responses to “Historic Alliances Between Hip-Hop and Punk”

  1. Nice article, Zach, with some really good info. Stumbled on it doing some research for a rock history class I teach. One missing note that maybe only us old punks remember is the effect hip-hop had on The Clash, and Mick Jones in particular. For one, the Clash picked Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to open for them during their Times Square residency at Bonds in the early 80s — a first in booking both genres, I believe. In their two remaining LPs, Sandinista and Combat Rock, the influence of hip-hop is clear in songs like Magnificent Seven, This Is the Radio Clash and Ghetto Defendant (among others). Then after the band broke up, and Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite with Don Letts, the hip-hop/punk cross-pollination was even more obvious. Anyway. Great article!

  2. I agree, I also came upon this article while researching for an upcoming book about the history of protest music through the decades. I had finished the punk chapter and wanted to include Grandmaster Flash somewhere and other punks of color. Particularly as a big Clash and Stiff Little Fingers fan, and knowing about Blondie, I knew that there was a lot more overlap. I would like to include this as source material as I continue with my research on this topic. Thank you.

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